Advent is upon us, and in my house, at least, we are already awash in Christmas decorations, music and movies. The peppermint bark candy is already on hand. The Christmas plates, cups and glasses are out. Our tree was up by Nov. 29! My wife, Jeanie, does Christmas right.
At Catholic Mass on the first Sunday of Advent, the priest’s homily contained a line that resonated with me. He said: “Jesus did not come into the world to make us gods. He came to make us truly human.”
While I know this claim hardly exhausts the meaning of the Incarnation, I do believe it is profoundly important. It is an important aspect of the theology of “Christian humanism” that I embraced in After Evangelicalism (2020) and that I was working on under other terms before that. In three posts between now and Christmas, I want to offer a theological account of what it means to say that Christ came into the world to make human beings truly human. These posts are loosely adapted from my 2013 book, The Sacredness of Human Life.
Genesis 1 says that human beings were made in the image and likeness of God (1:26-27). The imago dei concept plays an important role in most contemporary Christian theological treatments of the nature, dignity and rights of human beings.
Whether the image of God is understood to consist in our elevated rational, spiritual and moral capacities, in our delegated responsibility for the earth and other creatures, in our originally intended immortality, or perhaps as a declaration that humans are the only permitted representations of the divine on earth, the imago dei has long been understood to confer an exalted moral status upon human life.
In Genesis 9, quite significantly, it is cited as the reason why murder is banned: “I will require a reckoning for human life … for in his own image God made humankind” (9:5-6). Pretty much all Christian human rights documents make foundational claims tied to the image of God. It is precisely because humans were made in the image of God that human life has dignity, human life must be protected, and human rights must be respected.
“It is precisely because humans were made in the image of God that human life has dignity, human life must be protected, and human rights must be respected.”
However, some Christian theologians, taking the Christian creation/fall/redemption meta-narrative as normative, as I do, have argued that the image of God did not survive (fully or at all) the entry of sin into the world. Christian traditions and theologians disagree among themselves concerning whether, or what components of, or to what extent, the image of God in humanity survived the fall.
Given the great significance attributed to the imago dei in Christian theology and ethics, this is no small matter. If the imago dei was lost with the fall, then to make contemporary moral claims based on the imago dei is entirely illegitimate. This would nullify the core theological basis of much work on human rights and other issues.
A review of the historic Christian confessions reminds us that the focus of Christian theology is properly and has always been the saving activity of God in Christ, not fine details concerning human nature. However, the general pattern in relation to the question at hand appears to be that Catholic tradition affirms a weakened but still present imago dei even in fallen humanity, still deploying the image of God concept to ground its human rights and human dignity claims. Eastern Orthodox theology draws a distinction between “image” and “likeness” and employs this to preserve some good in fallen humanity but also the need for our comprehensive moral and spiritual reclamation. Some versions of traditional Protestant theology argue that the image of God in humanity has been destroyed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, said that the image of God was totally lost when Adam fell: “Human beings have lost their own, God-like essence, which they had from God. They now live without their essential purpose, that of being the image of God. Human beings live without being truly human.”
I see no clear evidence in the Hebrew Bible of a teaching that the image of God has been entirely lost upon the entry of sin into the world. The imago dei is apparently reaffirmed in Genesis 5:1-2 and clearly reaffirmed in Genesis 9:5-6, in the same primeval history in which the fall story occurs. One cannot say more than that, as the concept does not reappear elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.
“I see no clear evidence in the Hebrew Bible of a teaching that the image of God has been entirely lost upon the entry of sin into the world.”
Perhaps the silence is relevant to the argument. In any case, it is not implausible to argue that something is fundamentally wrong with human beings — not biblically implausible, as claims to human sinfulness abound in Scripture, and not experientially implausible, as we witness our own and other people’s constant floundering to figure out what it means to be truly, fully, meaningfully, successfully, human.
Bonhoeffer’s claim that humans have lost something of our designed God-like essence, essential purpose and ability to be “truly human,” makes so much sense as we look around us. Think about the violence, cruelty, injustice, stupidity, malaise and despair that afflicts human life. Think about a 15-year-old taking a gun to his classmates on an average high school day. This pessimistic interpretation of the narrative of creation and fall, in which human life has stumbled forward across the millennia, but something fundamental to what it means to be human has been hidden from us, or lost to us, or damaged within us, has a certain compelling power to it.
If salvation is going to come to us, as Advent promises, we are going to need a kind of help that goes right to our core. We are going to need someone to show us what it means to be truly human, and to help us become that. The New Testament has something to say about that. That will be the focus of my next post.
David P. Gushee is a leading Christian ethicist. He serves as Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University and is the past president of both The American Academy of Religion and The Society of Christian Ethics. He’s the author of Kingdom Ethics, After Evangelicalism, and Changing Our Mind: The Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta. Learn more: davidpgushee.com or Facebook.
Kneel or stand? A consideration of ‘imago Dei’ | Opinion by Matthew Tennant
Sin? Of course. Depravity? Not so much | Opinion by Russ Dean